For over 100 years, Omaha did not have an eruv.
Building an eruv has been on my agenda since I arrived here in Omaha seven years ago. Today, we have 19 young shomer Shabbat families living in the neighborhood and frequently get calls from people considering jobs in Omaha; they want to see the community.
And one of the first questions that they ask – even before addressing kosher restaurants – is whether there is an eruv. I knew that if Omaha was to ever become a serious Jewish community, it needed to have an eruv.
But an eruv is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.
My first step was to find a qualified rabbinic authority who would ultimately give the eruv his approval. Even though I am the chief Orthodox Rabbi of the state of Nebraska, I did not feel that my young shoulders were broad enough to rule on an eruv. I chose Rabbi Mendel Senderovic. He is a regional posek based in Milwaukee.
The second step was to find a route for the eruv. I was looking for a continuous span of existing wires. That would minimize the amount of building we would need and make the eruv more affordable.
The search officially began in 2007, when the highway construction on the northern border of our neighborhood finally finished. I took this on as a personal project. I ran around the neighborhood countless times. I ran so much I actually trained for the 2008 Miami marathon while searching.
I had minimized the route to a continuous perimeter with only two large gaps. I had absolutely no idea how much stringing a wire would cost me, or even if it was allowed. To make matters worse, one of the gaps was partially on the property of the local public school. I was told that gaining permission from a school board is a feat that is next to impossible for anyone.
I employed the help of my congregation to try and find an alternate route. We had field trips where we would walk and drive around the neighborhood trying to find a better way.
Rabbi Senderovic told me that some eruvs employ the use of steep hills in certain areas to complete the perimeter. So I constructed a giant wooden protractor and started measuring hills to see if they fit the requirements. I wondered what all the people who drove by and saw the guy in his running clothes with a giant wooden triangle thought I was doing.
But we continued to come up empty-handed. After spending countless hours on this quest, I have to admit that I was ready to give up. Maybe Nebraska was just not meant to have an eruv.
One day Josh Gurock, a Yeshiva University graduate who was relentless in the search for an eruv, called me up and told me he found the solution. We met and he showed me a continuous wire that was perfect in every regard – with one small problem. It cut through our neighborhood one street south of the “original” northern border.
With this wire as our northern border, the perimeter of the eruv would include about 90% of the intended area and every one of the young families – except for the Gurocks! This route never would have occurred to me. How could we have an eruv without the Gurocks? Particularly since Josh had been so instrumental in the project.
Nevertheless, Josh insisted, explaining that we can always expand it later. Right now, this community needed an eruv.
We had our route. The next step was to get the community on board. There have been communities that made it through most of the eruv hurdles only to get embroiled in bitter controversy with non-Orthodox Jews over whether or not there should be an eruv.
Fortunately, I have a wonderful relationship with both the Reform and Conservative Rabbis in town. Both Rabbis offered me 100% support in the project and pledged to stand behind me if any issues arose. I also approached the director of our regional office of the Anti-Defamation League who was incredibly supportive as well.
I had always dreaded the next part of the process: contacting the power company. How was I supposed to do that without sounding crazy? “Hello, Power Company? My name is Rabbi Gross and I need you to allow me to string wires and affix pieces of wood to some of your poles…so we can carry objects on Saturday. Is that alright?”
I could not imagine a scenario where that would not end with the power company hanging up immediately. I knew the only way to do this was to have an influential member of our community speak to someone high up in the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) and ask for a special favor.
I did my homework. All roads to OPPD seemed to point to a man in our community named Howard Kooper. Though not a member of Beth Israel, Howard is a great philanthropist, an incredible fundraiser for all Jewish causes and a leader in the Omaha Jewish community. It was under his leadership that Omaha recently remodeled the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home, a $20 million project that created one of the finest nursing home facilities anywhere in this country.
Everyone seemed to indicate that if anyone could get me in with OPPD, it was Howard Kooper.
When I went to meet with Howard about the eruv I was optimistic. Howard was a smart and practical man, and his sole objective is to make Omaha the best Jewish community in America. If he was convinced that an eruv would help us achieve that goal, he would be in full support.
My feelings turned out to be correct. I prepared a small pamphlet. Howard listened to my presentation, looked at me and said, “Rabbi Gross, will this eruv attract young Jewish families to Omaha?” With confidence I told him it would. “Then I will see what I can do,” he said.
Two days later I received a call from a project manager from OPPD.
OPPD was beyond accommodating. They were genuinely interested in the project and went out of their way to help. For lechis, they provided us the same materials that they use to cover wires and they gave us permission to attach them to their poles.
OPPD did the work required to string the wires where there were gaps, which saved us the trouble of finding an approved contractor, choosing approved materials and renting the proper vehicle.
It was OPPD who came to the rescue when we encountered a hitch with the city traffic engineer. He claimed that a wire strung across a very busy intersection – part of the eruv’s path – would be a huge liability for the city.
So an OPPD employee found a way to connect to an existing wire not far from the intersection. It cost a few more dollars, as OPPD needed to put in a new pole and move an existing pole, but it would get the job done.
After OPPD finished, we hired an electrician from our community and the two of us set out to install all the lechis around the perimeter. The job took longer than expected, but the Nebraska winter was on our side: we had beautiful sunny days through December and into January.
The last piece of the puzzle was to meet with the mayor. As the head of the city, the halacha is that we must get his permission to use the area for carrying on Shabbat.
A congregant of mine, Gary Javitch, has a personal relationship with Mayor Jim Suttle and was able to easily set up an appointment for me. The mayor was very accommodating – as always – and I can’t thank him enough for all of his support.
Today, all the stars have aligned for the Omaha Jewish community. We have a beautiful new shul. The day school is stronger than ever. We have a kosher bagel store and the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home operates a deli every Friday for lunch and a few times a month in the evenings.
Because of a low unemployment rate and low cost of living, people are moving here. Our shul has 75 children under the age of 18. The eruv was the missing piece. This is another milestone on the path of Omaha reestablishing itself as a major Jewish community.
I can’t give enough thanks to all of those who made this possible. Hashem should continue to bless our wonderful community, and we should have many happy occasions to celebrate together at Beth Israel, where every Shabbat is a Shabbaton!
Rabbi Joanthan Gross is the Chief Rabbi of the State of Nebraska. He is a musmach of Yeshiva University. His blog, “Rabbi in the middle of America,” can be found at www.amerabbica.blogspot.com.